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Tribe needs smooth move from Santana to third base

With Gomes' emergence at catcher, slugger testing out hot corner in winter ball

CLEVELAND -- The unbridled optimism of offseason chatter and, possibly, the confusion that comes from translations sans context created an unnecessarily strong proclamation in some corners that the Indians do, indeed, intend to use Carlos Santana as their primary third baseman this season.

"Right now, I see myself preparing to play third base, no other position," Santana was quoted as saying in an ESPN Deportes story translated from Spanish.

Of course, what Santana sees is nowhere near as important as what Terry Francona sees, and the Tribe skipper continued to couch all comments about Santana's immediate future with the caveat that Spring Training will go a long way toward settling the situation.

"I think I probably shouldn't read too much," Francona said Wednesday, "because every time I read something I get confused.

"Carlos offered to go play third base in winter ball [in the Dominican Republic], which we all thought was terrific. And it sounds like he's improving. But we don't need to make any kind of decisions today, nor will we at the beginning of Spring Training. But, if he can handle playing third -- some, a lot, little -- we'll see. That's all part of Spring Training. If he can handle it, it gives us another option with our middle-of-the-order bat."

That's really all that needs to be said right now.

By the Indians' officials, at least.

The rest of us can take this a step further and say the following:

They need this to work.

On some level, at least.

Francona needs Santana as a realistic option at the hot corner on more than just an "every third Sunday when it's raining and the cock crows three times" kind of basis. He needs him as an option on a somewhat consistent, if not everyday, basis, because that would provide a club that has established itself as very much bench-dependent the versatility it feeds on.

The lineup became the canvas upon which Francona did perhaps his best work in his Manager of the Year debut in the Progressive Field dugout, because it was where all his well-documented team-building, player-propping, culture-building strengths bore tangible fruit.

Francona eked every ounce of value out of the self-described "Goon Squad" (i.e., Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes, with Gomes eventually graduating from the goons and into a starting role) through his expert ability to place them in the best possible position to be successful. It's a science that sometimes went beyond statistics ("You can't ever forget that they're people," Francona said), though one stat that stood out was that a Tribe team augmented by three switch-hitters batted with the platoon advantage 71 percent of the time in 2013, a Major League high.

If you don't think that narrative will remain of pivotal import in 2014, well, the Tribe's transaction tracker ought to convince you otherwise. David Murphy is the lone signing of significance from a position-player perspective, with hope held out that Jeff Francoeur or Nyjer Morgan will assert themselves this spring for a fifth outfielder spot that may or may not exist, depending on Giambi's status and what the Indians do with the backup-catcher slot (if it isn't Santana, then non-roster invitee Matt Treanor is one option, and perhaps Kelly Shoppach will be another).

In other words, the Indians' best shot at improving upon the American League's fourth-best run-production total from a season ago (production that tended to come in bunches, not streams) is going to have to come from within. That means improvement out of veterans Asdrubal Cabrera, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, certainly, because another subpar season from that trio could make the Indians' overall success an unrepeatable feat. But it also means coaxing all possible projectable power out of the bat of Santana, who is their greatest middle-of-the-order weapon and is entering what ought to be his prime years.

Now, granted, maybe this is the year Lonnie Chisenhall blossoms. And the Indians obviously don't want to impede that. But Chisenhall, a first-round pick in 2008, simply hasn't materialized to this point, either with the bat or the glove (he might be like an Alex Gordon type who benefits from a position switch). And for a team counting on contention and in need of more offensive upside, especially with so many questions in a revamped rotation, patience is not always a virtue.

The simple truth is that the Indians are a weaker defensive team when Santana is behind the plate, and the wear and tear of the position is such that it's all too easy to assume his career slugging percentage (.446) is weaker than it would have been at another position.

The Indians' higher-ups long debated whether Santana's shortcomings behind the plate were a worthwhile trade for the better-than-average production he provided from that position and also whether he might become an even more reliable run-producer if they moved him to first base. But it wasn't until Gomes inserted himself into the conversation last spring that they actually had a better backstop option to force the issue.

Of course, by that point, Swisher was aboard, and so Santana, at just 27 years young, became a man without a position. In the throes of a playoff chase, this was not a particularly tough sell (though Santana, perhaps understandably, did a bit of pouting behind the scenes). In the quiet of winter, it's a different story, because now you're talking about a potentially permanent shift to DH for a guy who is young and talented enough to want more. And we don't yet have a large enough sample to know whether such a shift actually benefits him statistically (his 2013 OPS was lower in the DH role than it was at catcher or first base) or whether the over-analysis of each at-bat that accompanies a bat-only job will work to his detriment.

DH duty might sound like a sweet gig, but it's a drastically different sort of mental grind, and it's a job that Santana doesn't seem interested in exploring on anything other than a part-time basis, hence his volunteer duty down in the Dominican.

More pivotally, it isn't a recommended avenue in this era of roster construction. The long-awaited expiration of the Travis Hafner contract after 2012 lifted the shackles of a "traditional" DH situation and allowed the Indians the freedom of flexibility, upon which Francona capitalized in '13.

The reality of the roster indicates that Francona will need that flexibility again in the coming year. A hybrid catching situation doesn't seem constructive, given the inconsistency it could cause in the calling of the game and the controlling of the opposing running game. And with first base available on only a limited basis, an essentially all-DH solution is not ideal, given that it would limit Francona's ability to rotate and Santana's ability to be involved.

Granted, none of the above is even worthy of discussion if Santana is a train wreck at third. But by all accounts, that's not the case. At least, not in the low-profile platform of Dominican winter ball. And if we want to dumb down this conversation completely, we'll just say that if Miguel Cabrera can play third base for a World Series contender, anything goes.

But let's not dumb this down. Let's just state what ought to be obvious: The Indians will be a fundamentally better team if Santana sticks at the hot corner. As Francona's comments indicate, they don't want us to read too much into this experiment. But I do know they're quietly rooting for a positive result.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes